Louise joined my Teams call from her hotel room in Japan in high spirits, despite taking a 62-hour round trip from Cork via Dublin and Doha to get there. Having just completed her second year of a four-year Physics PhD at Trinity College, she is now, against the odds, set to compete at the highest level of global athletics: The Olympics.

Louise’s story is an interesting one and longer than you might imagine for a 24-year-old. Crowned European Youth Champion in the 800m in 2013, Shanahan tasted success at a young age. However, her journey to this point has not been a simple one. Having broken her navicular, a bone within the foot, in 2015, she struggled to improve her times and seemed to have plateaued at 2:08 for a number of years. Speaking with The Blue Bird in February, Louise discussed the negative press she received in her late teens and early twenties. She explained to Varsity that, “having been a very successful youth but then having struggled over the next six or seven years, I think a lot of people had subconsciously written me off.”

However, within the last few months, Louise’s performances have improved substantially. Even in February, it was clear that the Olympics were not a serious consideration, with the focus of Louise’s training being the World University Games, due to be held in China in August. However, it all changed in April, Louise tells me, as the Student Games were postponed by a year. “When that happened,” she explains, “it meant that there was really nothing left this year except for the Olympics. So I put everything into the Olympics, but probably not expecting [to qualify].”

“I’m gonna go into this heat and I’m gonna run it like a final”

As the Irish Times described it, Louise then went on to “qualify in the most dramatic of fashions.” Speaking to her tutor in early June, the time at which Shanahan “only really started to take the Olympic qualification seriously,” she explained why she had to leave Cambridge: “look, it’s an outside chance,” she said, “but it’s the Olympics. I have to go for it.” Throughout June, Shanahan therefore flew to the Czech Republic, Switzerland and back to Ireland to add three crucial results to her qualification chances. She explained that, seeing as the qualification window has been open for the last two years, the fact that “all five [of her times] have come from the past four months, three of which from the last three weeks” certainly is a surprising turnaround.

Therefore, as Shanahan then explained, “the reaction from absolutely everyone has been complete and utter surprise. To be honest I was surprised I qualified for the Olympics this year, so I can’t really blame anyone else for being surprised too!” Speaking to her own parents, her mother apparently took a full 48 hours for the team selection to sink in and her father “won’t believe it until [she’s] on the way home from Japan.”

I then asked about how such rapid improvements were possible, which Louise answered with a multitude of factors. An important one is the Athlete Performance Programme within the University (UCAPP). “I don’t think I would have qualified for Tokyo had I not moved to Cambridge,” Louise explains. “While the setup I had at home was really, really good, I couldn’t have made this improvement where I was.” She especially highlights “the structures that are in place in Cambridge, the coaches and the training partners that are here” as key contributions to her progress. Furthermore, Shanahan feels as though she has reached a point where her 2015 navicular injury “no longer governs everything [she does], which allows [her] to push on.” And finally, she also notes that her work/running balance has improved: “in my undergraduate [studies],” a year of which was undertaken in Berkeley, CA, “I probably didn’t get enough sleep trying to put in assignments, whereas the PhD is much more manageable.” Ultimately, she says, “all of them combined have allowed me to excel. The timing just seems to have worked in Cambridge.”

“I can now most definitely say that my greatest achievement is [...] not something I did when I was 15, which really makes all the years between now and then really worth it”

Now Shanahan must come to terms with the fact that she will be competing at the Olympic Games in the coming days. Her initial reaction, she says, was one of both joy and relief, given the criticism she received during her injury-stricken years. “Having put so much into the sport for so long,” she explains, “there was always the fear that I would turn 30 and retire and wouldn’t have qualified for an Olympics,” because, frankly, “the Olympics is just the pinnacle of what everyone wants to do.” Even though she had dreamed of this moment since the age of nine, she admits that “there were definitely years there where I questioned whether it was gonna happen or not.” Importantly, she tells me, “I can now most definitely say that my greatest achievement is qualifying for the Olympics and not something I did when I was 15, which really makes all the years between now and then really worth it.”

In terms of the competition itself, Louise’s first 800m heat will take place in the early hours (BST) of next Friday morning (30/07). Taking a realistic approach, and admitting that she qualified 46th out of 48 athletes, Louise explained that “the dream situation” would be to record a new personal best. She tells me that, ultimately, “the achievement is really getting here. That was the biggest shock of all.” Despite this however, “I am a really competitive person,” she says, “and I don’t just want to be at the Olympics, like I want to perform.” But her time is out of her hands somewhat and will depend on the nature of the race. Since 800m is far more tactical than the shorter sprints, if the pace is slow in her heat and ends with a sprint finish, it’s unlikely that Shanahan will achieve the PB she’s targeting. The bottom line, Louise says, is that “I’m in the shape of my life right now” and, with nothing to lose, “I’m gonna go into this heat and I’m gonna run it like a final.”

“I don’t think I would have qualified for Tokyo had I not moved to Cambridge”

Alongside the strict COVID precautions prescribed by the Japanese government, an important factor to consider for all Olympic athletes this year is the heat. With current temperatures reaching above 30 degrees, accompanied by extremely high humidity, Shanahan, along with all her fellow athletes, were apparently warned before departure and encouraged to undertake ‘heat training’. “What we were supposed to do,” Louise tells me, “was to expose ourselves to warm water of about 40-42 degrees for as long as we can.” However, “the problem was we don’t have a bathtub at home and I was in quarantine. Fortunately, my friend has a Jacuzzi-type thing so the day or two before I left, I was trying to get as much heat training in as I could.” Despite this last-minute training, Louise says that, for an event as short as an 800m race, the heat shouldn’t make too much of a difference. “The main thing is to stay hydrated as much as possible the entire time,” she says, adding that, “provided you turn up on the start line with a reasonable body temperature, I don’t think it’ll affect the race that much.”


Mountain View

Rowing their way to Tokyo: Meet Cambridge’s Olympic rowers

Taking a slightly broader focus, I asked Louise what it meant to her to be representing her nation at the Olympics. Her response was impressive and evidence of the fact that she has given the topic some thought: “it’s definitely important to me that I’m representing Ireland. Every chance I get to put on the green vest is one of the biggest achievements and privileges that I can have. But on top of that, for me, I’m also representing a lot more than just Ireland.” By this, she was specifically referring to all those who have supported her development up until this point: “standing on that start line, yes it is me and my hard work and my personal bests, but it is also a coach who has driven from Bedford to Cambridge several times a week in order to see me; it’s a physio who’s moved appointments around because I’ve done something stupid and picked up a niggle; it’s a mum who’s had dinner at 9pm because I couldn’t eat dinner before training for all of my teenage years; it’s a brother who’s missed out on things [...] because I’m racing in China or Azerbaijan or some random country that maybe he didn’t want to go to.”

So, next Friday (30/07) will be a big day for all those involved in Louise’s journey through Cork, California and Cambridge. Against the odds, Louise will be competing at the highest level of athletics against some of the strongest athletes in the world. Her own words do it justice: “honestly I just can’t believe it.”

We at Varsity would like to thank Louise for making the time to speak to us amidst her preparation for the Games, and wish her the very best of luck.